Sunday, October 06, 2013
564 W. Randolph Street, Chicago, IL
Sunday, 6 October, 2013
From Grain to Glass at CH Distillery
On October 6, 2013, several dozen members and guests of the Chicago Société Mondiale Du Vin (the wine and crafted beverage specialty interest group of the Chicago Chaîne) visited CH Distillery, the city’s first joint distillery-bar. CH follows “grain to glass” small batch distillation practices. Analogous to the “farm to table” movement that has swept the country, CH hand crafts premium-quality liquor from scratch under one roof using local grain.
The evening began with a cocktail reception in CH’s 48-seat, sophisticated contemporary space. Instead of a back bar lined with bottles, enormous picture windows focused our attention on the adjacent operating distillery and its handsome copper and stainless steel artisan distilling equipment. Rows of fiber optic lights hang above the sleek illuminated bar, where only CH brand spirits are used: vodka and two types of gin. (Whiskey and rum are in the works, but need more time aging in barrels on site.)
Krissy Schutte, Managing Director of Food & Beverage, and the CH mixologists were eager to answer our questions. The super smooth vodka retains a slightly sweet flavor from the farm fresh grain, and serves as a perfect pure spirit for infusions created behind the bar. The entry-level Key Gin offers an accessible flavor profile of key lime, lavender, rosemary and subtle juniper notes, while the London Dry Gin is redolent with juniper, coriander, cardamom and other classic botanicals.
Consulting mixologist Kyle Davidson (Blackbird) has developed a menu of classic cocktails and creative house-specialty cocktails. We started with the bar’s bestselling “Cease and Desist”—a riff on the contemporary classic Penicillin cocktail that incorporates CH Distillery’s London Dry gin (instead of single malt scotch) together with fresh lemon juice, ginger syrup and honey. Previously named the “Oxycontin” until big-pharma lawyers claimed trademark infringement, this cocktail succeeds because the gin is infused with lapsang souchong tea, imparting distinctive smoky flavors and aromatics sure to please any scotch drinker.
Guests enjoyed other specialty cocktails as well, including “Rhymes With Orange” made with spicy Serrano chili-infused vodka, lime, house-made orange curaçao and fresh watermelon. Another favorite was the “Czech Mate,” which combines cinnamon and spice-infused vodka, fresh grapefruit juice and honey syrup.
Consulting chef Jesse Katzman (avec, West Loop Salumi) has developed a concise menu of sophisticated small plates and bites, many with a nod to vodka-loving northern Europe. From his tiny open kitchen behind the bar, Executive Chef JP Doiron (avec, Perennial) impressed guests with beautiful beet and vodka-cured gravlax on lavash topped with yogurt and fresh dill; warm pumpernickel blinis with red caviar and decadent citrus crème fraîche; shiitake paté on dark rye with pickled banana peppers, macerated figs and mizuna; and corned duck breast and liverwurst on black rye bread topped with paper-thin slices of lemon and herbs. Guests also had the opportunity to indulge in two savory shooters (vodka compressed melon and tomato; oyster cocktail shooter) and two sweet shooters (panna cotta shooter; Pimm’s No. 1 cocktail cup).
CH was Chicago’s first restaurant to sell West Loop Salumi’s widely acclaimed offerings. Guests devoured the super-lean Bresaola (particularly tasty with the London Dry gin as it has been massaged with juniper berries and other herbs), flavorful Finocchiona salame cured with fresh fennel pollen, and Pancetta made from heritage Berkshire pork belly. The salumi was served alongside several cheeses, including Bent River Camembert, a rich cows milk cheese from Minnesota; Evalon, a raw goats milk cheddar from Wisconsin; and Dante sheeps milk cheese from Wisconsin.
The second phase of our evening included a fascinating tour of the 8,000 square foot distillery side of the operation. Led by CH co-founder and master distiller Tremaine Atkinson and co-founder Mark Lucas, guests were divided into two groups and escorted into the impressive facility to witness the entire process of craft spirit making from beginning to end. Mr. Atkinson shared his goal of making the kind of clean, clear spirits that he, personally, likes to drink.
The first interesting tidbit we learned was that the “CH” in the distillery’s name stands for the symbols of carbon and hydrogen, fundamental compounds in alcohol (and, of course, an acknowledgement of its hometown).
We started at the enormous vodka fermentation tanks and column still. Unlike many other distilleries, CH does not buy commercial neutral grain spirits and simply redistill it. Here, it’s done from scratch—CH has chosen a combination of farm fresh wheat and rye from Illinois as its medium to be fermented and distilled. The grain is dumped out of massive bags and fed directly into the mill where the rough flour produced. Next, the rough flour created by the mill is conveyed automatically into the mash tanks with water.
Yeast is eventually added to the fermentable medium, which creates a fermented, alcoholic liquid (called the wash) that is then ready for CH’s two-column vodka still. The distillate is redistilled three times to achieve a highly pure vodka. Purified water is then added to the high-proof distillate to attain the desired alcohol percentage, which CH pegs at 40% (80 proof).
The tour ended at the comparatively small copper still with a short reflux column where the gin is distilled. This remarkable contraption looked like it belonged in a Jules Verne novel with its tank, pipes, portholes and columns full of illuminated trickling liquids. A spout of undiluted gin splashed into a stainless steel jug, providing us with an opportunity to taste and assess the undiluted gin goodness.
After witnessing the bottling process using custom, Chicago-made bottles, Vice Echanson Michael Belsley and Bailli de Chicago Mon Roldan presented a framed Mondiale Award of Merit to Tremaine and the gracious CH team. Mondiale members and guests were delighted to continue enjoying cocktails at the bar while watching the distilling process continue behind glass with a new-found understanding and appreciation of CH’s “grain to glass” philosophy.
The world is well acquainted with Chicago’s notorious Prohibition history when 10,000 Capone-controlled speakeasies and countless stills were concealed throughout the city in back rooms and basements. Surprisingly, it has taken 80 years since the dry era’s demise for the Windy City’s very first joint distillery-bar to legally welcome the public. But it was worth the wait: CH Distillery is a groundbreaking addition to Chicago’s craft spirit movement and West Randolph’s vibrant drinking and dining scene. Cheers!
Please join us at newly-opened micro-distillery, CH Distillery. The name CH is a double-entendre for the molecular formula for ethanol and the abbreviation for Chicago. Located in the West Loop, CH Distillery features artisanal cocktails made from batch-by-batch gins, rum and vodka served in a sleek room overlooking the distillery’s glass-protected custom stills.
Our event will be broken into three segments:
We will begin at 4:00 with “amuse booze” cocktails accompanied by substantial canapés, charcuterie and other small plates.
At 5:00, we will break into two groups - the first group will embark on an hour-long educational, behind-the-scenes tour of the distillery lead by CH Distillery’s owner-distiller, Tremaine Atkinson. This tour includes an explanation of the distillation process and equipment, as well as a discussion of the different spices and roots that are in the gins and the grains that CH Distillery mills to make its spirits. While the first group is touring the distillery, the second group will spend an hour learning about and tasting CH Distillery’s house spirits. Get ready to learn about the differences between light and citrusy key gin and the classic London dry gin and to do a comparison tasting of CH Distillery’s vodka (which is made from wheat harvested in Illinois and distilled 20 times) served cold and at room temperature.
At 6:00, the first group and second group will trade places and the second group will take the distillery tour while the first group learns about and tastes the house spirits.
After 7:00, the bar will remain open at CH Distillery for our members who want to continue their sampling of CH Distillery’s artisanal cocktails on a cash basis.
It is certain to be an educational and fun evening. Space is limited to 50 so please sign up early!
Price Per Person: $140 Mondiale Member and Guest ($165 Non-Mondiale Member)
Dress Code: Smart Casual
Start/End: 4:00 PM/7:00PM
Parking: Metered Street Parking